Cable Goes Unplugged – CableWiFi

Yesterday the big 5 U.S. cable operators—Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox and Time Warner Cable—announced a new WiFi service extension that allows their broadband subscribers to access more than 150,000 wireless hotspots across the country. This network was built by the MSOs and they created a common WiFi SSID called CableWiFi to simplify the sign-on and roaming experience for their subscribers. In fact, while I write this post at a Starbucks in Watertown, MA, I see CableWiFi network pop up as an option; there must be a Comcast subscriber nearby.

This is a big network and getting bigger—analyst firm Heavy Reading projects that the industry will have more than 250,000 cable Wi-Fi hotspots in place in mid-2014. In that same report Heavy Reading also reports that the cable operators have invested more than $175 million on building out Wi-Fi hotspots with more to come. The focus of cable operators continues to be on improving the broadband experience. Cable service providers have also been investing in taking the digital experience outside the home. Primarily that has been on the MSOs’ core business of video services. So why not extend that to the digital voice service they deliver too? If video, why not VoIP?

In the backdrop of OTT competition and mobile substitution, service providers should endeavor to make fixed voice a little more stickier and a little more useful for their customers. The cable operators can extend their brand and the customer experience via a communications app on a PC, tablet or smartphone and use the same home number and calling plan. Whether that subscriber is sitting on the couch at home, an airport lounge or a coffee shop in Spain, the cable VoIP experience reaches farther. They can blend traditional fixed VoIP with a “telco OTT” approach. There may be a way to monetize this distinctly, but more importantly, it’s about making their triple-play bundles more valuable and desirable. Additionally, the MSOs could use WiFi extension as part of the SMB and hosted business voice offerings to help differentiate and provide value to their subscribers.

This group of cable operators has flirted with wireless technologies and services for years—first there was the Sprint Pivot deal, then mobile broadband resale with Clearwire, followed by the purchase and subsequent sale of unused spectrum, and most recently, a MVNO relationship with Verizon Wireless. This nationwide WiFi roaming network combined with resale of mobile broadband and maybe cellular voice could be that wireless relevancy and quad-play piece that the cable industry has been striving for but have not yet delivered. Could it be a Republic Wireless like play, where it’s voice over WiFi first and a fall back to 3G circuit voice when not available?

Cable operators have been very sensitive to the quality of services they deliver over their cable broadband network. With an architecture that leverages QoS and service flows, they have done a great service to digital voice by delivering high quality VoIP with reliability for a decade. When it comes to VoWiFi, maybe there is some hesitation as they do not control the network end-to-end. However, if they are doing it for latency sensitive video, they can do it for VoIP.

Akin to the FreedomPop free mobile voice and data service just announced, I view CableWiFi as a positive move for subscribers that can further disrupt the mobile industry.